Would you pay $50 for a stranger to push you to the brink of a psychotic break?
Well, if you live in New York City or Los Angeles, you can—and lots of people already have. The Blackout Experiments premiered at Sundance earlier this year and has left many questions in its wake, for it focuses on the Blackout Experience , an immersive, personal haunted “house” that participants must go through alone. Before their “blackout,” brave souls must sign a waiver and fill out a personal questionnaire outlining their past traumas, fears, and general life experience. They don’t know where their blackout will be held until midnight the night before, adding to their dread of the unknown. Is this theatre, art, a fetish–or something else entirely?
The horror documentary was directed by Rich Fox, who followed a group of people who have gone through the “Blackout Experience” multiple times, and thus have forged a deeply personal connection to the experience, verging on obsession. On the night of their blackout, the subjects head to their specific destinations and are snatched into buildings that box in their deepest fears. The documentary follows mostly men, suspiciously only featuring a brief snippet of a woman’s experience. Often, those in the blackout are forced to strip down to their skivvies, or get completely naked and are sometimes covered with a cheap plastic rain poncho. One guy had a female “guide” performing his blackout, and he was forced to fondle a dead chicken whilst chanting, “This is the temple of my worship.”
Another had a man put a plastic bag over his head, denying him air in bursts by taking it on and off repeatedly. In a special invitation experience, Blackout came to clients’ homes and performed in their sacred space.  More like violated their sacred space. What happened next could only be explained as a home invasion. Two men in masks brought in a woman and repeatedly tried to sway the male participant to shoot her dead–that’s right, with a gun. This fellow was brought to tears with the choice of disappointing Blackout or pulling the trigger of a (thankfully) unloaded gun. Participants can experience forms of water torture, and are also branded with what looks like a tattoo gun, but is also (thankfully) just permanent marker.
Why would someone agree to go through a purposefully traumatic experience such as this, you might ask? Especially when the effects of blackout reportedly include: hyperawareness, paranoia, anxiety, nightmares, and the blurring of lines dividing reality and fiction during day-to-day life. According to those that go through such ordeals, it’s because it is a challenge that they would not necessarily go through in a controlled setting. It’s sadistic yet (apparently physically) safe, and some of them like to be hurt a little. It’s about vulnerability and mastering your fears, others offer. “I want them to push my limits, and go past them…although they took it to an extreme that I’m not sure I was prepared for,” one said. Another stopped going because he says, “I liked it at first, but after awhile I realised it’s not a haunt, it is abuse.” The experience seems to be raw, adrenaline-pumping and uniquely human.
The Blackout Experience’s creators say that, “It’s better to allow people to project their own fears…we hope to get people to confront and face their own issues, learn something from them, and come out stronger afterwards.” For many in the documentary, it has definitely proven to be therapeutic. Although for others the price of that therapy was the sacrifice of personal relationships; certain close acquaintances simply couldn’t understand the preoccupation with willingly putting oneself in an ultra-vulnerable setting like that. I, personally, have other questions.
What are the limits of a blackout, if any? Once people sign a waiver, is it fair game for anything to happen? Including, but not limited to: rape, acting as an accomplice to a crime, committing manslaughter… Why wasn’t the rest of that woman’s experience filmed thoroughly? What happened to her? What if there had been bullets in that gun? If things go sideways, do Blackouters have any means of self-protection? It’s tricky. I’m not sure I would have the guts to surrender that type of control to God-knows-who, especially God-knows-who whose intentions are to shock and traumatise the deepest reaches of my psyche. Yet I do wonder what they would come up with to scare me.  For the moment, I’m content here on standby in my apprehensive, morbid inquisitiveness. Do you think you have what it takes?
The Blackout Experiments is available for rental on iTunes, VUDU, and Amazon Video.
Gabrielle Helmin-Clazmer


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